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Map of evacuation centers and routes

When Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast, the evacuation of the area went much more smoothly than during Hurricane Katrina three years ago. This time, the local, state and national agencies were more prepared for a potential disaster.

Similarly, online media outlets and volunteer efforts were also better prepared for this hurricane, having learned their lessons from the Katrina disaster, when they were scrambling to deal with the chaotic scene of widespread destruction and mass evacuation.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune’s NOLA.com website, for example, spent the past three years optimizing its site for breaking news coverage, adding blogs, increasing opportunities for citizen contributions and arming staffers with videocameras. And NPR social media strategist (and fellow PBS blogger) Andy Carvin was able to quickly mobilize volunteers online to create the Gustav Information Center hub and wiki thanks to his experience covering Katrina, the Southeast Asian tsunami and 9/11 — not to mention the wiki templates from these earlier projects.

In both cases, previous experiences helped inform a more mature response to the oncoming storm.

How Things Have Changed

In 2005, NOLA.com editor in chief Jon Donley told me in an OJR story that his staff had to radically redesign the site to effectively cover Katrina, as New Orleans became a one-story town, and the site was inundated with 30 million page views in one day.

“Our website got a complete redesign [on the fly],” Donley said. “By the time we evacuated we (had) a completely different design.”

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Jon Donley

Ultimately, NOLA.com forums and blogs actually helped rescue teams find stranded people in homes, and the site helped the newspaper win a Pulitzer Prize for its Katrina coverage. Today, not just the site’s features and design, but also its editorial processes, reflect lessons learned during Katrina.

In a recent interview, Donley told me that the paper’s reporters all file stories online first; editors then decide which stories to pull and put into the print newspaper each day. This makes it much easier for print reporters to consider the web as their primary publishing platform during breaking news coverage, such as Gustav, when the newspaper couldn’t be printed because of power outages. Plus, NOLA.com staffers all carry videocameras with them around town in case they see breaking news. So it was easy for them to file video reports of damage and rescue operations as they traveled around New Orleans after Gustav hit.

Video shot by NOLA.com’s Milena Merrill of a search-and-rescue operation

In addition, when Gustav hit, NOLA.com was already set up for users to submit information in blog posts, photos or videos — all of which helped tell a more complete story of the evacuation, damage and re-entry. As evacuees started to come back to New Orleans, NOLA.com depended on user input and updates from local bloggers to help recommend the best routes back into town. Donley said his team created new blogs on the fly, including Making Groceries listing businesses open in neighborhoods, and Electricity, which tracked areas where power has been restored.

“So much of what we went through in Katrina was taking primative tools and applying them in a kludgy way,” Donley said. “We’ve been planning for three years for the next evacuation coverage.”

Dealing with ‘Hellish’ Heat

Katrina also taught Donley and his staff about the operational realities of disaster coverage. During Katrina, NOLA.com and newspaper staff eventually had to evacuate the Times-Picayune building and its “Hurricane Bunker,” part of the photo department that has generators set up to run computers in case of a power outage. This time, staff was able to stay in place, though a power outage made working in the office difficult due to the extreme heat and humidity — something that came as no surprise. In fact, Donley had predicted these conditions in a memo to staff:

At best, this will be an overnight or two, with little privacy, long hours and only the creature comforts you bring with you. At worst, it will be a [few] days in hellish heat and dark, and then an evacuation to some godawful place for an undetermined time. You are free to bring a couple of bags, ice chest, air mattress, etc. to the paper. There is floor space to stash your stuff and stretch out. If we have to [evacuate], though, you will have to leave behind anything you can’t carry on your back…

If we lose power…we’ll have slots for two people in the photo department, affectionately known as the Hurricane Bunker. The room will be packed with people and computers. This means that people will work in shifts in the hellish heat, and then rotate out into the hellish dark. There will be no power or connectivity in the newsroom.

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Just as Donley warned, the power did go out and the heat was pretty oppressive in the Times-Picayune building. Luckily, there were enough people on hand to rotate work shifts, so some people could try to get sleep while others kept up on news coming in. As evaucees started to come back to New Orleans, NOLA.com depended on user input to help recommend the best routes back into town. Donley said his team created new blogs on the fly, including Making Groceries listing businesses open in neighborhoods, and Electricity to find out where power has been restored.

Instant Collaboration

While NOLA.com staff was hunkered down for the storm, Carvin was helping pull together 500 people to power a social media effort aimed at providing aggregated information for evacuees and their worried extended families. He told me that the collaborative effort came together quickly online after he spread the word on Twitter.

“From the time I announced the project [last] Saturday night until the storm came on shore mid-Monday, I managed to pull together around 500 participants who volunteered on a variety of projects,” Carvin said via email. “Thanks to my colleagues, with whom I’d volunteered during Katrina and the tsunami, we had a wiki template that didn’t take long to get going and populate with relevant information. Similarly, our map team and the volunteers working on transcribing ham radio traffic pulled off minor miracles in a short amount of time.”

Carvin focused on creating a Ning social networking site because it could help participants keep in contact while also highlighting various widgets with information on the storm. The Ning site, now dubbed the Hurricane Information Center, in order to encompass not only Gustav but also Hanna and other storms to come, includes a WeatherBug map, Flickr photos, Twitter updates from Mississippi Public Broadcasting, an annotated Google Map of Evacuation Centers and Routes, and much more.

I wondered if the advent of so many new social media tools since Katrina made it easier to aggregate information on the fly for a breaking news event.

“We now have more tools available, but in some ways it makes it more complicated, because we have to figure out quickly which ones will do the most good. Even though a blog or a listserv doesn’t have the same bells and whistles, there’s an elegance to them, plus a low barrier to entry, that in some ways make them more accessible and productive.”

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Still, one newer tool, Twitter, proved to be a big help for Carvin in publicizing his efforts and getting volunteers involved initially.

“Twitter has helped get the word out at an amazing rate,” he said. “Amazing numbers of people forward my tweets, expanding the pool of people exposed to the project. So what was purely word-of-mouth before can spread like lightning on Twitter.”

Carvin’s work on the project was completely separate from his work at NPR, though he told me he might incorporate some of the lessons learned into future NPR projects. That might help him make a bigger impact with such aggregated volunteer efforts in the future. While the Ning site did get more than 600 members, one evacuee from Lafayette Parish told me he hadn’t heard about the resource until I brought it to his attention. Having NPR or another news outlet helping to promote this kind of volunteer effort could give it more impact.

While most local and regional news outlets limit their coverage geographically, a volunteer effort like Carvin’s could help them broaden their reach with something more national — or even global — in scope.

“I think one of the challenges faced by all organizations is that you have your specific audiences, jurisdictions, goals, etc.,” Carvin said. “That means you focus on serving them well. So NOLA.com is going to do amazing work for New Orleans, and Mississippi’s emergency management agency might be well prepared to help their residents — they’re still different spheres. By setting up a wiki, aggregations and other tools, we tried to connect the dots, finding the best sources from news organizations, government agencies and the general public, then presenting them in a unified fashion.

“From a public service perspective, I’d like to help give volunteers with technology and editorial skills the chance to do their part. You don’t have to be an EMS technician or a trained Red Cross volunteer to play a valuable roll in emergency response; there are roles we can play online as well. But the journalist in me also hopes to demonstrate that there are productive ways that journalists and the public can collaborate with each other, even in the most trying of circumstances.”

What do you think? Did you find relevant information about Hurricane Gustav online, or do you think it was still difficult to find what you wanted to know? What sources will you use to track Hannah as it approaches landfall? Do you think collaboration between the media and public will be the key in covering future storm stories? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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